Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Fossils in the Making

By Kristin George Bagdanov

Reviewed By Karen Kevorkian

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The phrase “After the planes hit,” from “Lines Written After Crisis,” the first poem of this rich, satisfying collection, announces a 9/11 context and identifies the book as depicting a body shocked, perpetually in media res, suspended in an adrenaline-pumped present. Human and animal bodies as well as the earth’s body are sites of struggle. The body, which is of the earth and will return to the earth’s sediments and residues, is considered in sediments and residues of language. Nevertheless, the poems honor lyric tradition in their attention to nature through the lens of the twenty-first century—under siege, with surprising and evocative movement and juxtapositions. Occasional fragments, words or misquotes, give depth to the effort to construct meaning in poignant echo of literary legacy (including Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, Dickinson, Donne, and Eliot).

Bagdanov’s poetics rely on wordplay, sometimes near or simplistic rhyming, repetitions, unlikely pairing of words with visual and sonic resemblance, and typographic interruption. Conflation and a kind of semblance-rhyme—wool / will, chews / move, inches / cringes—are often central. It’s suggested we may strive for precision, but the uncertainty of reference makes its achievement impossible. Linguistically we exist in a blur. In “Earth,” she writes:

                  soul
      So my          verb not noun not now but always
                  self

                                          wool                chews
      chafes my body:                  that
                                          will                moves

Occupying the positions of divisible fractions here, words’ meanings are mutable. “I express the shape of clouds but not the substance,” the poem says in “Proof of Extension,” and, in a nod to Wordsworth: “I think / inside the lonely cloud and the wandering one too / as they think in me.” Changed ways of living no longer relate to traditional eloquent expression. “Song” fragments Keats’ bird:

      God ungiving
                    voice that spoke:
                                echo of night
                                                           in
                                              gale

      Grieve with me: still
      bird      still now;
      we only wanted you so
      we could hold song
      in our hands

In the poem that follows, “Word: After Paul Celan,” as it was for Celan, the language of poetry is disrupted; the singing that is poetry ends in broken glass, a blood mouth, and a blood melody of tongue. In the way that Celan did not recover from the deportation and loss of his parents however much he tried to probe the experience with language, the poetics of this book stays resolutely at the borders of understanding.

Strong images from the botanical, geological, mammalian, and environmental worlds sensuously create lines of emotional force in the poems. The book undoubtedly contributes to ecopoetry, opening with reference to 9/11 and offering a poem that begins: “If my body is an illness, then my bones / are a tangle of sea trash, plastic six-pack / that chokes the bottlenose.” “Proof of Parasite” (play on paradise), a poem about the egg-laying female wasp, also explores female identity by considering the female wasp who gives away her eggs. “Even in nature many do not want to be mothers,” the poem says. The senses are important not only to language but to conceptualizing experience:

      Who could know their eggs from another’s

                  Imagine the sterile lineup   the police line-up

      of bodies wet & glistening & no smell

      to smell yourself home    Who would know

      their own phylum class family species    genealogies

      that say you belong

For protection, you are forced to “spin a skin around you,” she writes, “as if you were more than the sum of your parts.” The body self-betrays, like language. In the untitled poems that are in the section of the book entitled “Wagers,” she writes, “I hear my animal body shedding : I cannot stay a thing . . . I hear my animal body chewing : I cannot taste a thing
. . . I hear my animal body burning : I cannot say a thing.”

“Wound” offers a feminist context for the book’s effort to create an idiom adequate to its disturbances. With directness that isn’t typical, she gender-critiques Thoreau’s contemplative retreat, beginning the poem with caustic intention: “how nice to sit inside a wood of your own,” she says, an experience available only to someone who had “no baby to test it, interjecting / its small fact, itself sounding <i> until it becomes a // me / myself.”  She adds, “if only <i> had a wood in which </i> // could escape    these disobedient   ovaries, too many possible / selves.” In the last two stanzas the language of the poem fragments, but does not lose intensity:

      But the <i> is sublime
      in the wood             he says only listen and men will, will
      disobey their father bodies       to hunt their animal bodies

      </i> should go watch their selves’ animal bodies’ heads
      turn     to this inaudible pitch:      the moon
      scream          inside me               clean

      shot       through their eyes, the wound <i> touch
      </i> bloody myself,        my i

The language here is exceptionally direct for this poet, amplified by typographic tampering. Brackets can be read as the mathematical symbol for “not equal to,” a comment on the conditional nature of identity, and in this case particularly, female identity. It may better be recognized by some as HTML code, the bracketed i marking italicized passages that act like scare quotes, qualifying and adding tone and dimension to lines that seem fragmented under a burden of emotion.

Occasionally the tone of some poems feels a little didactic (“each one waving a flag / on which was written / the adage of our age: / reach for courage / and find rage” from the poem “future/past”). However, Bagdonov usually has a breathtaking way of dispelling readers’ unease by inserting, as in this poem, a deeper literary context juxtaposed to images that are utterly contemporary—“gyres widen wider now they are plastic / chains of polystyrene guard the absence at the center”:

      (C8H8)n  the gravesite an gravemarker of a future
      that bonds with tide-moon-gravity
      as with birdbeak-fishbelly-breastmilk:

                     CH-TMG-BBFBBM

                              a new adage to outlast
                              the holy chanting
                              of vowelled breath

The audacious combining of the chemical formula for the carcinogenic plastic clogging waterways and seas could be a text message abbreviation for “That’s My Girl—Body by Fisher Brain by Mattel,” creating a lyric that is utterly contemporary and socially relevant without sacrificing emotional depth. The idea that repetitions of these letters would constitute a mantra for our times creates an electrifying moment of reader recognition. One of the penultimate poems in the book is a multiline reiteration of the term “dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane,” positioned to create an anagram down the center of the text: “LYRE I TRIED.” This is a writer with a capacious, dexterous reach.

Karen Kevorkian is the author of two previous poetry collections (White Stucco Black Wing and Lizard Dream) whose work appears in many national literary journals. Another collection, Seeking Quivira, is forthcoming in 2019. She is a Lecturer at UCLA.